Monday, January 31, 2011

Low Down Memphis Barrelhouse Blues (Mamlish, 1970s)

Since most of the tracks on Low Down Memphis Barrelhouse Blues are easily available on various Document Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order CDs and JSP box sets, I used to question the point of posting prewar blues comps like this. However, after receiving positive feedback in response to sharing similar albums in the past, I no longer second-guess myself on such matters. Even if these collections contain material that can be found elsewhere, the songs can take on new life if they are presented within the context of a thoughtfully-assembled mix such as this one.


In similar fashion to other titles from the catalogue of Don Kent's Mamlish label, several of the tracks featured on Low Down Memphis Barrelhouse Blues would later reappear on a CD in the Yazoo 2000-series, the strongly recommended Memphis Masters. Like that subsequent release, this compilation of material recorded between 1928 and 1935 provides a broad overview of performers who operated within the cultural and geographic orbit of that famed Southern river metropolis. It emphasizes some of the lesser-known bluesmen of Memphis as well as musicians normally associated with the city's best-known jug band recording under their own names.


Hattie Hart, who occasionally belted out vocals for the Memphis Jug Band, finds herself backed by the twin guitar attack of Willie Borum and Allen Shaw on the forthright "I Let My Daddy Do That." Two alumni of that same group, Will Shade and Jab Jones respectively lay down steady guitar and some outstanding piano work on "Better Leave that Stuff Alone," an admonition to the dangers of drinking canned heat. The incomparable Robert Wilkins, whose "Alabama Blues" ably demonstrates his instrumental dexterity and unique sound, ranks highly among the significant group of musicians from northern Mississippi who relocated to Memphis and did much to contribute to its rich music scene. Cocaine-snorting songster Jim Jackson also came from this region, although he was a generation older and generally favored material more suitable for medicine shows, with "
Bootlegging Blues" being one of his more instrumentally advanced performances. "Policy Rag" and "Doctor Medicine" are two driving dance instrumentals from the South Memphis Jug Band, arguably the bluesiest of such aggregations who operated in the city. Consisting of guitarists Jack Kelly and Dan Sane (Frank Stokes' erstwhile partner), fiddler Will Batts, and jug blower "Doctor" D.M. Higgs, this was one tough-sounding unit. The latter piece refers to Higgs' additional talents as a practitioner of herbal medicine. Attributed to Kelly, the magnificent "Highway No. 61 Blues" can essentially be considered another side by the South Memphis Jug Band, but with the aforementioned guitarist also handling the vocals. "Shake Mattie" (with its "shake, rattle, and roll" line making it a precursor to rock 'n' roll) and "My Washwoman's Gone" are two of the greatest duets that Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie ever recorded, due in large part to his plaintive vocals and her amazing slide guitar work. "Reachin' Pete," with lyrics about a long-armed lawman, is a worthwhile solo recording by Minnie, but not as compelling as those two earlier cuts. Apparently, James "Mooch" Richardson originally hailed from eastern Arkansas and, not surprisingly, comes off as the most rural-sounding of the artists profiled here. He is something of an acquired taste, displaying a rudimentary approach to guitar and a deliberate vocal style that might grow on some people over time. "T and T Blues" and "Low Down Barrelhouse Blues Pt. 1" are more typical of his modus operandi, while Lonnie Johnson's surprising presence greatly enhances "Burying Ground Blues." I never considered Sleepy John Estes to be much of a guitarist, but I always liked how he sang, especially when backed by the mandolin of Yank Rachel and the piano of the previously-cited Jab Jones as heard on "My Black Gal Blues."

1. I Let My Daddy Do That - Hattie Hart
2. Better Leave that Stuff Alone - Will Shade
3. Alabama Blues - Robert Wilkins
4. Policy Rag - South Memphis Jug Band
5. Doctor Medicine - South Memphis Jug Band
6. Shake Mattie - Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie
7. My Washwoman's Gone - Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie
8. T and T Blues - Mooch Richardson
9. My Black Gal Blues - Sleepy John Estes
10. Highway No. 61 Blues - Jack Kelly
11. Burying Ground Blues - Mooch Richardson
12. Bootlegging Blues - Jim Jackson
13. Reachin' Pete - Memphis Minnie
14. Low Down Barrelhouse Blues Pt. 1 - Mooch Richardson

Friday, January 28, 2011

Omar Khorshid - Guitar El Chark (Sublime Frequencies, 2010)

It's only coincidence that this post just so happens to appear at the same time that Egypt is seemingly on the verge of a political if not complete cultural revolution, a movement that will hopefully not lead to any additional bloodshed. Guitarist nonpareil Omar Khorshid, of course, was a native son of that country whose mysterious premature death quite possibly resulted from his inadvertent involvement in the politics of the region. I can only wonder what he would make of the unrest in his homeland were he still alive today.

I was beyond stoked when this sumptuous two-LP set was released last year. Like most vinyl issued by Sublime Frequencies, Guitar El Chark received a very limited pressing, sold out in rapid fashion, and pretty much became an instant collectible. While I already own CD versions of most of Khorshid's albums, having an opportunity to hear these mesmerizing Middle Eastern grooves on vinyl was too tempting of a proposition to pass up, no matter what the cost. The creme de la creme of his 1973-1977 recordings for the Lebanese Voice of the Orient label is compiled here and offers the best possible introduction to the man's impressive body of work. The liner notes for this release provide a good abridged version of his life story, and those interested in reading a more detailed biography (as well as an opportunity to check out some great photos and ephemera) are encouraged to check out Omar Khorshid's website.


With the exception of the radio spot appearing at the very end, the tracks that appear on this retrospective are all instrumental performances of a staggering virtuosity. To my ears, Khorshid practically reinvents electric guitar playing. His style is all his own, but at times his sound reminds me of Dick Dale, more traditional Arab musicians, and even
Bruno Battisti D'Amario, who played on several of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks. In short, these performances exhibit all the wonderful possibilities of playing authentic late 20th-century Middle Eastern and belly dance music on what is considered primarily a Western instrument. All facets of Khorshid's musical genius are on display here. Many of the selections, intentionally or not, have a strong psychedelic aspect to them, especially the mind-blowing title track, "Hebbina Hebbina," "Ah Ya Zaman," "Kariaat El Fengan," "Sidi Mansour" (the Middle Eastern "Interstellar Overdrive"?), "Raqset El Fada," and the ethereal "Taksim Sanat Alfeyn." A distinct science fiction element can be heard on the final two tracks, as the respective translations of their titles -"Dance of Space" and "Music of the Year 2000" - would suggest. Other pieces such as "Wadil Muluk" and "Rahbaniyat" are showcases for Khorshid's lightning fingers, while "Sabirine" practically drips with reverb. "Ommil Habiba," "Raksat El Kheyl," "Solenzara," "Habibaty," and "Warakat Ya Nassib" display the more laid back and sensitive side of the guitarist, and what they lack in pyrotechnics they more than make up for with exquisiteness. "Arrabia'h" and "Enta Omri" rank as the most purely Middle Eastern-sounding numbers, especially with the "Cifte Telli" section in the latter. The instrumentation throughout this album typically consists of Khorshid on guitar, an electric keyboard, synthesizer or accordion player, and one or more percussionists on hand drums. The synth work occasionally gets a little out of hand on certain tracks that at times border on Middle Eastern disco, but this is a very minor quibble on what is otherwise a consistently extraordinary listening experience.


1. Guitar El Chark (Guitar of the Orient)
2. Wadil Muluk (Valley of the Kings)
3. Sabirine
4. Ommil Habiba (Mother, My Dearest)
5. Hebbina Hebbina (Love Us Like We Love You)
6. Rahbaniyat (Rahbani Variations)
7. Ah Ya Zaman (For Old Time's Sake)
8. Kariaat El Fengan (Fortune Teller)
9. Arrabia'h (The Spring)
10. Sidi Mansour (Master Monsour)
11. Raksat El Kheyl (Dance of the Horses)
12. Solenzara
13. Enta Omri (You Are My Life)
14. Habibaty (My Beloved)
15. Raqset El Fada (Dance of Space)
16. Warakat Ya Nassib (Lottery Ticket)
17. Taksim Sanat Alfeyn (Music of the Year 2000)
18. Record Company Promo Spot

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Taxi Driver - Original Soundtrack Recording (Arista, 1976; 1998)

An Open Letter to Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese from Record Fiend


What happened? Individually or collectively, you two were responsible for some of the finest movies to be released during the 1970s and 1980s. However, for the last 20 years or so, most of your films have been at best mediocre and at worst positively awful. Sure, there have been a few exceptions during this time, but for the most part you guys have just been resting on your laurels and going through the motions. The fact that both of you have been involved with not one but several cinematic masterpieces makes the current situation all the more perplexing and intolerable.


Mr. De Niro, your downward spiral began at the end of the 1990s. That decade actually started out quite well with Goodfellas and Awakenings, but your decline rapidly turned into a free fall after you decided to become a parody of yourself and go through with an ill-advised comedic reinvention as exemplified in the thoroughly lamentable Analyze This from 1999. Of course, the morons who help keep Hollywood in business ate it up, so much so that the public demanded and got just what they deserved, an even worse sequel, Analyze That, in 2002. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's not forget that you started out the aughts with two pieces of steaming excrement, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (as Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap would ask, "Excuse me, is this a joke?") and the better-known Meet the Parents. That latter movie, of course, spawned the even worse Fockers sequels (did a 12-year-old come up with the titles for those?) that have started to pop up every few years like a recurring virus. It's really sad to think that the lame Jack Byrne character is probably the role that most people younger than 25 associate with you. I could go on, but it would just be an exercise in anger, disappointment, and depression.


Mr. Scorsese, your best films were clearly those that included the previously-discussed actor, with my favorites being Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. The King of Comedy and Casino were both pretty good, but in my estimation, Mean Streets is overrated, and that remake of Cape Fear was completely unnecessary. You totally lost me, though, with movies where you've utilized other performers, especially more recent disappointments like Bringing Out the Dead with the always-annoying Nicholas Cage and the bloated Martin Scorsese Present the Blues - A Musical Journey, which only served to perpetuate so many of the ridiculous and overly-romantic misconceptions about the genre and its practitioners. And what's with your recent obsession with non-talent Leonardo DiCaprio? I don't care how many awards that these excessively-funded project have won. Everyone knows that the year's best movie never wins the big prize anyway.


Which brings me to the aforementioned Taxi Driver, the best thing that the two of you did together. I don't have to go into detail why this is such a superb motion picture; you already know all the reasons. Mr. Scorsese, I especially want to give you credit for getting legendary movie score composer Bernard Herrmann to do the soundtrack, his final as well as one of his best productions. The atmospheric, jazz-inspired tracks fit the movie to a t, but most importantly for recordings of this variety, the music stands on its own just fine. As you probably know, these pieces are extremely evocative of crisis-ridden New York City during the economic pits of the mid 1970s, but are nevertheless beautiful in their own unique way. And I don't know if it was your idea, but it was definitely a good move to include the "You talkin' to me?" monologue so superfans could memorize it.


All of this is a roundabout way of saying that even though both of you set very high standards for yourselves early on in your careers, I know that you can do better than what you've been doing lately. Goodness knows that you now have more money than either of you can spend, so why not go back to taking chances? Who cares if future projects aren't box office blockbusters? Don't further tarnish your already-damaged reputations. It's not too late to rehabilitate yourselves and become great once again.

Still your fan,


Original Film Score Conducted by Bernard Herrmann:

1. Main Title
2. Thank God for the Rain
3. Cleaning the Cab
4. I Still Can't Sleep/They Cannot Touch Her (Betsy's Theme)
5. Phone Call/I Realize How Much She Is Like the Others/A Strange Customer/Watching Palantine on TV/You're Gonna Die in Hell/Betsy's Theme/Hitting the Girl
6. The .44 Magnum Is a Monster
7. Getting into Shape/Listen You Screwheads/Gun Play/Dear Father & Mother/The Card/Soap Opera
8. Sport and Iris
9. The $20 Bill/Target Practice
10. Assassination Attempt/After the Carnage
11. A Reluctant Hero/Betsy/End Credits

Additional Interpretations:
12. Diary of a Taxi Driver (album version)
13. God's Lonely Man (album version, with alternative ending)
14. Theme from Taxi Driver*
15. I Work the Whole City*
16. Betsy in a White Dress*
17. The Days Do Not End*
18. Theme from Taxi Driver (reprise)*

*Arranged and conducted by Dave Blume

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bo Diddley - Bo Diddley & Company (Checker, 1963)

The received wisdom from many established critics would have us believe that the American music scene circa 1960-1963 was a total wasteland, with its creative spirit revived only after the British Invasion came along to stir up the pot again. While this viewpoint may be correct regarding songs that made the Top 40, it ignores the fact that there was a lot of innovative but non-charting material being played by obscure and/or underappreciated artists that the recording industry, still recovering from the payola scandal from the preceding decade, often didn't know how to utilize. In fact, there was a significant number of rock 'n' rollers from the 1950s who stepped into the 1960s without missing a beat, even if they weren't as commercially successful as they had previously been.


Bo Diddley serves as one of the best examples of an American musician who not only continued to record during the first few years of the new decade, but also made the best albums of his career. Although he had seven Top 25 R&B hits during the 1950s, he was primarily a singles artist at that point in his career. It wasn't until the 1960s that Chess Records changed their approach and started focusing more on albums, as the dozen Bo Diddley titles released during this ten-year span would seem to indicate. Although none of these records cracked the Top 100 in the US, they evidently sold in numbers
sufficient enough to maintain his status as a legend in his own time. Indeed, 1960-1963 was Diddley's most fertile period, yielding such classic albums as Have Guitar Will Travel, Bo Diddley in the Spotlight, Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, Bo Diddley Is a Lover, and the subject of today's post, Bo Diddley & Company.


As one can surmise by looking at the cover photo, this LP was the first to feature second guitarist Norma-Jean Wofford (aka "The Duchess"), whose instrument adds even more depth to Diddley's characteristic polyrhythmic sound. Although some of the 14 tracks recall some of his earlier recordings, there are always enough subtle differences to keep things interesting. "(Extra Read All About) Ben" continues Diddley's tradition of bad man ballads leavened by his typical wisecracks, while the propulsive instrumental "Help Out" seems to pick up where "Mona" left off. "Diana" is in a similar vein, but with lyrics. The boast-filled and metaphor-laden "Bo Diddley Is a Lumber Jack," with its spoken-word delivery and atmospheric backing music,
practically defies description. Quite simply, it's the sort of thing that only could have come from the mind of the mighty Bo Diddley. "Lazy Women" offers up some humorous misogyny, whereas "Mama Mia" and "Met You on Saturday" come off as overly-romantic filler and the album's weakest moments. Matters are quickly rectified with the hard-charging, if unimaginatively-titled, "Rock 'n' Roll" and a song that should have been a hit, "Gimme Gimme." The almost country-sounding "Put the Shoes on Willie" features the backing vocals of the Bo-ettes. One could make the argument that "Pretty Girl" and "Same Old Thing" are simply Bo doing Bo. Perhaps so, but Diddley going through the motions is more interesting than most musicians at their most inspired. In likewise fashion, "Little Girl" and "Cookie Headed Diddley" reprise the "Bo Diddley" beat and "Diddley Daddy" tempo respectively, but it's the variations on familiar themes that makes these cuts the musical equivalent to comfort food, at least as far as I'm concerned.


1. (Extra Read All About) Ben
2. Help Out*
3. Diana
4. Bo's a Lumber Jack*
5. Lazy Women
6. Mama Mia*
7. Rock 'n' Roll
8. Gimme Gimme
9. Put the Shoes on Willie
10. Pretty Girl
11. Same Old Thing*
12. Met You on Saturday
13. Little Girl*
14. Cookie Headed Diddley

All tracks monaural, except (*) stereo.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Phil Ochs - All the News That's Fit to Sing (Elektra, 1964; Mono)

Dismissed by some as an also-ran with Bob Dylan during the folk revival of the 1960s, Phil Ochs was much more than that. Although his transition to folk rock was not as commercially or aesthetically successful as that of his aforementioned counterpart, I've always thought that he was the superior talent when it came to writing and performing protest songs. Nowadays, it's easy to make light of Ochs' support for Mao Zedong and Che Guevara as political naivety. However, when it came to exposing the injustices and hypocrisy of the American way, few musicians have been more eloquent.


There are many accounts of the singer's fascinating but ultimately tragic life out there, with the best being Michael Schumacher's book, There but for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. In the early phase of the musician's career, he combined the influences of elder folkies like Woody Guthrie and Bob Gibson with his background in collegiate journalism to produce an impressive and articulate body of work that was well received by readers of Broadside magazine as well as audiences at Greenwich Village clubs and the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. As a result, Ochs' name was already well-known among the coffeehouse cognoscenti when his debut long player, All the News That's Fit to Sing, was released by Elektra in 1964. The title parodies the
"All the News That's Fit to Print" motto of the New York Times, a newspaper now synonymous with liberal journalism but probably then viewed by Phil as insufficiently leftist.

This album serves as a road map of sorts for Ochs' future as a recording artist. Although the sound of his music evolved over time, these songs are representative of the political views he would maintain until his untimely self-inflicted demise in 1976. The production on All the News That's Fit to Sing (heard here in glorious mono) is spare, with the vocals and acoustic guitar of Ochs sympathetically backed by the unamplified picking of future Blues Project lead axeman Danny Kalb. While the singer's voice may not be that impressive from a technical standpoint, the straightforward manner in which the material is presented only adds to the "authentic" sound that was championed by folk music enthusiasts at the time. On most songs, Ochs wears his beliefs on his sleeve but, in many cases, also effectively uses sly humor to keep things from becoming too heavy-handed. "One More Parade" (co-written with mentor Bob Gibson) is a hopeful song of peace, while the "folk rap" of "Talking Vietnam" and "Talking Cuban Crisis" address two subjects that would help define the 1960s. "Lou Marsh" deals with an urban activist murdered in the streets of New York City by the very same people he sought to help, and "Celia" concerns itself with the story of Filipino revolutionaries Celia Mariano and Bill Pomeroy. "Automation Song" celebrates blue-collar Americans and condemns the cutthroat business practice of replacing men with machines. "Ballad of William Worthy" staunchly defends the journalist who dared travel to China and Cuba during the late 1950s and early 1960s in direct violation of the US State Department, whereas "Too Many Martyrs" laments the assassination of Medgar Evers, a major figure in the history of Civil Rights (a movement vigorously backed by Ochs in "What's That I Hear," according to the liner notes). The dreaded visitors in the chilling "Knock on the Door" are the authorities in an unnamed police state. The shadow of Woody Guthrie looms large on two other songs. "Bound for Glory" is a testimonial to the man himself, and "Power and the Glory" sounds like something that could have come from the Dust Bowl Troubadour's songbook. "The Thresher" eulogizes the sailors who lost their lives on that doomed nuclear submarine in 1963. Finally, the one track utterly distinct from the others is a most interesting and enjoyable musical interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells," a spellbinding performance that gave me a newfound appreciation for the poem.


1. One More Parade
2. The Thresher
3. Talking Vietnam
4. Lou Marsh
5. Power and the Glory
6. Celia
7. The Bells
8. Automation Song
9. Ballad of William Worthy
10. Knock on the Door
11. Talking Cuban Crisis
12. Bound for Glory
13. Too Many Martyrs
14. What's That I Hear


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Joe Beck - Nature Boy (Verve-Forecast, 1969)

Out of all the great psychedelic guitar albums from the 1960s, Nature Boy by Joe Beck just might be that decade's best-kept secret. Much of this has to do with the fact that he's usually thought of as a jazz instrumentalist, which might scare off some people who focus on rock to the exclusion of all other varieties of music. Moreover, the similarity of his name to that of Jeff Beck, who was also establishing himself as a solo artist around the same time, probably didn't help matters when the album was released in 1969.

I first became aware of Joe Beck as a result of his participation on John Berberian's landmark Middle Eastern Rock LP from the same year. Anyone familiar with that album will readily attest to his extraordinary guitar playing throughout the proceedings and especially on "The Oud and the Fuzz." My curiosity in Beck was greatly piqued by his contributions, and after reading about his then-forthcoming debut record in the liner notes of Middle Eastern Rock, I knew it was something that I had to add to my collection. Prior to the release of Nature Boy, he had already earned a favorable reputation in jazz circles by playing with luminaries such as Chico Hamilton, Gary McFarland, and Charles Lloyd. Most notably, Beck was the first electric guitarist to play with the legendary Miles Davis, as heard on the groundbreaking fusion of "Circle in the Round" and "Water on the Pond," both recorded in 1967. Established as a musician's musician, Verve-Forecast was eager to see what he could do on his own.


Beck negotiated a $100,000 advance from the label, but squandered it all on partying during the month that the album was supposed to have been completed. Necessity being the mother of invention, he forged ahead almost single-handedly, recording nearly all the of vocal, guitar, bass, and piano parts on his own. (It should be noted that Beck's singing is actually quite capable, due in part to the multi-tracking utilized throughout the LP). Drummer Donald McDonald, who also played with Tim Hardin, was the only other full-time musician on the album, although trumpeter Randy Brecker, bassist Don Payne, and (surprise!) guitarist Danny Whitten from Crazy Horse make appearances as well. As one might expect, Nature Boy mixes a number of disparate ingredients, but does an excellent job of blending them all together. Overall, the sound of this album can best be described as psychedelic rock played with a jazz sensibility. Beck's serpentine leads are a thing of wonder, with his rapid-fire approach to soloing being an utterly distinctive trademark. McDonald's percussion work gives up just enough funk to keep things danceable, but also displays a nimbleness unique to jazz drummers.


Although the eden ahbez-penned title track has been covered by many artists ranging from Nat King Cole to Gandalf, you've never heard it like the wah-wah-heavy version that opens the album. The tender "Spoon's Caress" displays Beck's prowess on acoustic guitar quite nicely, while its lyrics deliver a chilling warning about the seductive power of heroin. In a bit of serendipity, that track is followed by notorious smack casualty Danny Whitten's "Let Me Go," which had originally appeared on the eponymous 1968 album by his proto-Crazy Horse band, the Rockets. This version is just as compelling and features Beck and Whitten effectively complementing each other on guitar and vocals. "Come Back: Visions Without You" achieves a certain melancholy grandeur, while "Maybe" allows the guitarist to show off his raga chops in rather convincing fashion. Sporting the title "No More Blues (Rapid Disintegration of a Chamber Orchestra)," the instrumental track that kicks off side two sounds just as you would imagine, with a lush introduction followed by Beck and Whitten's fierce dueling guitars. In edited form, the appealing "Goodbye L.A." could have perhaps been a hit single, although it would have required paring down the mind-blowing fretwork. "Please Believe Me" is a piece akin to "Spoon's Caress," albeit with considerably less menacing lyrics, and "Ain't No Use in Talkin'" provides Beck with an opportunity to conclude things with yet another guitar tour de force.

1. Nature Boy
2. Spoon's Caress
3. Let Me Go
4. Come Back: Visions Without You
5. Maybe
6. No More Blues (Rapid Disintegration of a Chamber Orchestra)
7. Goodbye L.A.
8. Please Believe Me
9. Ain't No Use in Talkin'

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Joe South - So the Seeds Are Growing (Capitol, 1971)

Joe South is one of those recording artists whose songs generally elicit more recognition than his own name. Ask most casual fans of music from the late 1960s and early 1970s about him, and it's likely that they won't know who you're talking about. But mention commercially-successful cover versions of Joe South tunes like "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden" by Lynn Anderson, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," by Elvis, and "Hush" by Deep Purple, and you're likely to get a response like, "Oh, I had no idea that he wrote those tunes. Who is he?" Some of those same people might also be familiar with "Games People Play," his Grammy Award-winning #12 pop hit from 1969, but unaware of the identity of the person who recorded it. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that South's fame came as quickly as it went. Nevertheless, he remains an important and influential performer and songwriter from one of the most creative eras in the history of American music. With his complete output for Capitol Records having been reissued on CD and original vinyl copies of these albums remaining relatively easy to find at reasonable prices, it's high time for a Joe South revival.


Born Joseph Alfred Souter in Atlanta, Georgia in 1940, the singer-guitarist started working in the recording industry as a songwriter and studio musician in the late 1950s. He really hit his stride in the latter half of the following decade after developing his own distinctive sound that was an ahead-of-its-time mix of rock, country, blue-eyed soul, and psychedelia. While he remains best-known for his considerable songwriting skills, it should also be noted that he is a fine singer and an excellent guitarist whose frequently mind-expanding fretwork (especially on his Danelectro Guitar Sitar and heavily-customized Gretsch Country Gentleman) remains sadly underappreciated. Interpretations of his works by other artists ultimately sold in greater numbers, but that did not prevent Capitol from releasing six LPs (in addition to a Greatest Hits anthology) during his relatively brief 1968-1972 heyday. Unfortunately, South's brother Tommy, who played drums in his backing band, committed suicide in 1971, a tragic event that plunged Joe into a major depression and caused him to lose focus on his music career. Although he released a couple of LPs for other labels during the mid 1970s, he never did regain his commercial momentum and has remained something of a recluse for the last 35 years or so.


So the Seeds Are Growing is South's second-to-last album for Capitol and was released in 1971. While it doesn't contain any material that met with Top 40 success, I feel that it is nearly the artistic equal of his best effort, the Games People Play LP. In typical fashion, many of the titles on this album were penned by South and display the usual hallmarks of his best work: intelligent lyrics, exquisite instrumentation, imaginative production, and hooks aplenty. The title track more or less sets the tone for this LP, with its message-laden verses and tasteful orchestration keeping matters on the sophisticated side of things, while the tight rhythm section maintains the song's rock identity. "No Fence Around Me," "I've Got to Be Somebody," and "Rolling On" are in a similar bag, but feature instrumental contributions of a more prominent nature from South and/or one of the other guitarists - Pee Wee Parks, Eddie Farrell, and John Fristo - listed in the liner notes. My favorite performance on So the Seeds Are Growing is the anthemic "Revolution of Love," which features a seductive groove and some outstanding playing by Joe on that aforementioned Danelectro Guitar Sitar. Although the sentiments expressed in the lyrics were already a bit dated by 1971, this song had all the ingredients to be another huge hit. The remainder of the album finds South covering material associated with other writers and artists. The stirring interpretations of Ray Charles' "Drown in My Own Tears," Mars Bonfire's "Lady Moon Walker," the traditional gospel tune "Motherless Children," and even Bread's "The Other Side of Life" succeed in mostly brilliant fashion. However, the same can't be said for the somewhat lackluster take on the Brotherhood of Man's "United We Stand." Well, a little bit of filler won't kill you.


1. So the Seeds Are Growing
2. No Fence Around Me
3. I've Got to Be Somebody
4. Revolution of Love
5. United We Stand
6. The Other Side of Life
7. Drown in My Own Tears
8. Lady Moon Walker
9. Rolling On
10. Motherless Children

Friday, January 14, 2011

Long John Hunter - Ooh Wee Pretty Baby! (Norton, 1999)

Long John Hunter is a musician who defies easy categorization. Although generally classified as a Texas blues guitarist, his approach incorporates other musical elements into the mix, as convincingly illustrated by the tracks on Ooh Wee Pretty Baby! Much of this can be explained by the fact that Long John developed his distinctive sound in relative isolation - not even in Texas, but across the border in Mexico, of all places.


Born in Louisiana in 1931 to itinerant sharecropping parents, Hunter spent his teenage years in Arkansas before an eventual move to southeast Texas. During the early 1950s, he attended a B.B. King concert at the insistence of some friends, an event that he identifies as the inspiration for him to pick up the guitar and become a professional musician. After forming a small combo, he played regularly at the clubs around his home in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area. A single recorded at a local radio station, "Crazy Girl" b/w "She Used to Be My Woman," received significant regional airplay and caught the ear of Don Robey, the owner of Duke Records. Hunter ended up signing a contract with him, a move that he would soon regret since the label failed to release any followup recordings. To this day, he believes that Robey brought him into the fold simply to stifle any competition the guitarist might offer to established Duke artists such as Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, and Johnny Ace. Nevertheless, Hunter was making decent money by playing in smaller venues after relocating to Houston, where Duke was based. By 1957, he had successfully pressured Robey into voiding his contract and, at the suggestion of some other musicians, relocated to remote El Paso, where there was considerably more opportunity and fewer musicians with whom to compete. However, it was in the Mexican border city of Juarez (a one-time popular destination for American tourists before it became the front line in that country's drug cartel wars) where Hunter really made his mark. Not long after his arrival in the area, he earned a residency at a popular nightspot called the Lobby Cafe, where he played regularly for the next 13 years or so. His band's personnel included a singer who had to be roughed up to get him to perform, a narcoleptic second guitarist, and non-English-speaking bartenders who had received crash courses on their respective instruments. By his own admission, Hunter came into town as a B.B. King imitator, but necessity required him to develop a raw form of rhythm & blues that was uniquely his own.


From 1961 to 1963 and again in 1971, Long John recorded for the tiny Yucca label in nearby Alamogordo, New Mexico during his spare time between appearances at the Lobby. Although traces of Texas blues guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown are audible on these sides, there are other times when one can detect the influences of Guitar Slim, B.B. King, Little Richard, and even hillbilly music. Although this album contains some excellent liner notes and an extremely interesting interview with the musician, it unfortunately lacks comprehensive discographical details about the recording dates and personnel. As a result, I can only assume that most of these songs are from Hunter's 1961-1963 sessions and that he handles the vocals except where noted. My favorite tracks are the appealingly crude instrumentals that all sound like they could have been waxed ten years earlier: "El Paso Rock," "Flippin' Fingers," "Midnight Stroll," "Shuffle Out," "Grandma," and "Slash." Selections such as "Ride with Me Baby," "Border Town Blues," "So Long," "Old Red" (possibly the lone cut recorded in 1971), and "Stop What You're Doing" straddle the cusp between blues and rock and further epitomize what Long John Hunter's music is all about. With its Latin-sounding rhythm, the beginning of "Hey Mrs. Jones" is reminiscent of Muddy Waters' "Walking Through the Park," while the melody of "School Girl" seems to have been borrowed from Little Richard's "Lucille." "I Wanna Love You" represents what an up-and-coming Hunter must have sounded like during his "B.B. King, Jr." days, and "Ole Rattler" is a country music piece most notable for his surprisingly credible yodeling. The rollicking "Betty Lou" and the steady-rolling "Strange Feeling" find him backing Sonny Guitar, the aforementioned axeman known for falling asleep on stage during gigs at the Lobby. The final track, the Bobby Bland-ish "I Don't Care," once again features Long John in accompanying role, this time providing guitar for singer Dennis Roberts.


1. El Paso Rock - Long John Hunter
2. Ride with Me Baby
- Long John Hunter
3. Border Town Blues - Long John Hunter
4. Flippin' Fingers - Long John Hunter
5. Midnight Stroll - Long John Hunter
6. Hey Mrs. Jones - Long John Hunter
7. Shuffle Out - Long John Hunter
8. School Girl - Long John Hunter
9. So Long - Long John Hunter
10. Betty Lou - Sonny Guitar
11. Strange Feeling - Sonny Guitar
12. Grandma
- Long John Hunter
13. I Wanna Love You - Long John Hunter
14. Old Red - Long John Hunter
15. Stop What You're Doin' - Long John Hunter
16. Ole Rattler - Long John Hunter
17. Slash - Long John Hunter
18. I Don't Care - Dennis Roberts

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bill Cosby Presents Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band (Sussex, 1972)

Bill Cosby's name elicits both reverence and revulsion. If you're a Gen Xer like me, you probably grew up knowing him as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on the overly-ingratiating Cosby Show sitcom and as the dude on those Jell-O Pudding Pops commercials from the 1980s. If not for the Fat Albert Saturday-morning cartoon, I probably would have had no interest in him whatsoever. The superb music that was featured on that show (its theme song features one of the greatest bass lines of all time) first gave me an indication that he had a more interesting side. Indeed, if one exercises selectivity, evidence of the man's genius can be found in his numerous television, cinematic, and musical projects from the 1960s and 1970s.

Among his most obscure creations was the funk-jazz fusion outfit Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band. That they recorded even one LP, an excellent Bitches Brew-like album from 1971 on Uni (where their name includes a "&" between "Funeral" and "Marching"), with the Cos playing respectable keyboards, is a pretty weird proposition. I've seen it around in the blogosphere, and to those who enjoy progressive grooves from that era, I strongly recommend seeking it out. More amazing, however, is the existence of a second recording, Bill Cosby Presents Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band (with no "&"), released the following year on the Sussex label. As the "Presents" in the title suggests, Cosby does not perform on the album, but still plays an active role in the proceedings as composer, arranger, and producer.


The impressive cast of musicians on this record includes Mel Brown on guitar, Walter Bishop on piano, Stu Gardner on organ and occasional vocals, Big Black on congas, Bobo Thomas on timbales, George Bohanon on trombone, Joe Henderson on saxophone, Monk Montgomery on bass, Stix Hooper on drums, and many, many more. Compared to the first Badfoot Brown album, this followup displays a heavier vibe with more of an emphasis on funk over fusion. Nevertheless, with personnel like this, these five primarily instrumental performances can't help but possess an advanced, improvisatory quality as well. If I ever directed a Blaxploitation film, I would definitely find a way to include the wickedly rhythmic "Bunions" on the soundtrack, that's for sure. At almost a quarter-hour in length, "The Blues" is a bit excessive, although it still includes some fine passages, especially when the guitars and horns really kick in around the eight-minute mark. "I Love You Camille" is a dreamy, majestic piece dedicated to Cosby's wife, while the intense anti-drug epic "Abuse" pounds as furiously as anything Funkadelic was doing around the same time, with tremendous fuzz and wah-wah guitar that would make even Eddie Hazel envious. "Mouth of the Fish" is similarly dynamic and includes some equally impressive fretwork.

1. Bunions
2. The Blues
3. I Love You Camille
4. Abuse
5. Mouth of the Fish

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hit Parader - October 1967

I had some free time during the holidays, which provided me with the opportunity to get some magazines scanned and archived as PDFs. After dropping the Mojo-Navigator bomb on you over the weekend, it seemed appropriate to follow that up with another journalistic artifact courtesy of Vinylplastic's periodical library. As far as I'm concerned, this particular item, the October 1967 edition of Hit Parader, is the crown jewel in that collection. Judging by its contents, this issue must have hit the newsstands just prior to the occurrence of the mainstream media creation known as "The Summer of Love."


Although the cover features unsurprising popular acts like the Beatles and the Monkees, it's that little photo of Moby Grape that truly indicates the magnificence inside. There's a three-page feature on this band that includes brief biographies of each musician (the write-up for Skip Spence was, in fact, reproduced in a 2009 release of two of his demo recordings) as well as photos that have not seen the light of day for more than 40 years. Obviously, that's my favorite thing here, but there's a lot of other great stuff, too.


Among the other interesting items:
-A brilliant essay, "Frank Zappa on Freedom"
-The always entertaining "We Read Your Mail"
-An ongoing Jefferson Airplane series, with this month focusing on Paul Kantner
-"Extra! The English Scene" by Hit Parader's "Gal in London," Miranda Ward
-Seven pages of "Words to Your Favorite Hits - Parade of Song Hit" (an invaluable resource in the days before people could just look up lyrics on the web)
-The second part of an in-depth interview with guitarist Steve Cropper
-"Granny's Gossip"
-"The Doors Are Different Part 2"
-A look at how amplifiers are built
-"New Stars on the Horizon" (well, the blurb on Procol Harum is pretty cool, at least)
-"Brownie McGee (sic)/Living the Blues as told to Jim Delehant"
-"Platter Chatter" including reviews of Absolutely Free by the Mothers of Invention, Moby Grape's debut LP, The Way I Feel by Gordon Lightfoot, et al.
-Plenty of period advertisements for commodities ranging from singing pin-ups to weight-gaining tablets
And that's just for starters.



The only flaw with this particular copy is that it's missing the first page with the table of contents. But that doesn't really matter, since you'll probably want to read the thing from cover-to-cover anyway. In short, a nice flashback for old heads and an enlightening experience for historically-minded younger ones.

Check out the February 1967 issue of Hit Parader here.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mojo-Navigator - Issue #13 - April 1967

The trailblazing San Francisco-based Mojo-Navigator zine earned its place in the history of rock 'n' roll journalism for several reasons. First and foremost, it's where pioneering writer and editor Greg Shaw (who died way too young at the age of 55 in 2004) got his start in 1966 before achieving greater fame with the better-known periodical Bomp! (originally titled Who Put the Bomp) and an identically-named independent record label. Moreover, it acted as a sort of West Coast counterpart to Hit Parader (although in a much more modest, self-published way) in that it featured passionate and knowledgeable contributors who took rock 'n' roll seriously. Nowadays, such respect is taken for granted. However, let's not forget that it wasn't until the end of the 1960s when rock was finally recognized by the mainstream media as something more than just music for kids. Of course, Rolling Stone eventually rode the Haight-Ashbury zeitgeist to become the biggest publication in its field, but the Mojo-Navigator helped establish an enthusiastically receptive reading audience for such periodicals in the first place.


As with the PDF of the February 1967 issue of Hit Parader posted last year, to look through the pages of this mimeographed periodical is to trip back to the time when San Francisco Bay Area psych was just about to explode on a nationwide scale. Since the Mojo-Navigator was a zine written and put out by fans, it may lack a certain objectivity possessed by the more professional journals of its day. Nonetheless, the reader receives a unique "from the streets" perspective from this kind of ahead-of-its-time writing. In many ways, publications like this one can be viewed as the music blogs of their day, especially in terms of content and/or appearance. In an excellent interview with Scram magazine, Shaw recollects,
The word "fanzine" came out of the tradition of self-publishing. Everyone who was into fandom had their own mimeograph machine, knew how to cut stencils, how to run it off, and enjoyed doing that. It was a form of craftsmanship. A lot of people made very elaborate, beautiful zines - they had nothing to say! They just filled them up with drivel and cartoons. Others tried to be slick and professional, but because it was essentially done by amateurs, the line was drawn. It was like self-expression. It was one person's personality and point of view, and the people who had a good personality and could express it became the stars of that world.

This scan of the 13th issue of the Mojo-Navigator is another contribution from Vinyplastic's massive periodical archive that I helped him organize last year. I'll admit to having something of an ulterior motive since I knew he had a bunch of vintage 1960s magazines in his stash, including this particular item. It just so happens that another site has digital files containing numbers 1 through 12 in addition to number 14. However, the link that purports to be for 13 will actually take you to a PDF of 14. I believe that this post in combination with what's available on that site represents the zine's complete run.


To summarize briefly the contents of this issue, you get a great cover photo of Big Brother & the Holding Company's James Gurley to get things started. Editors Shaw and David Harris' editorial section discusses the rise of serious rock criticism and the importance of reviewing not only rock albums, but live performances as well. They also put down Crawdaddy! magazine in a big way, describing it as being "based primarily on record reviews which are occasionally good but usually bullshit." Mike Daly contributes with a thorough piece on Phil Spector that includes a then-comprehensive discography of releases on the producer's Philles label. There's a fascinating interview with the Blues Magoos in which the musicians ask nearly as many questions in a conversation on the differences between the East Coast and West Coast music scenes. I always find album reviews written during the time in which the LPs originally came out to be especially interesting from a historical perspective. The write-ups by Shaw, Harris, and Gene Sculatti on the debut efforts by the Doors, the Youngbloods, Buffalo Springfield, the Electric Prunes, the 13th Floor Elevators, and Tim Buckley as well as assessments of Face to Face by the Kinks, Younger Than Yesterday by the Byrds, DaCapo by Love, and many other records from 1966 and early 1967 are no exception to this rule. A brief piece on the infamous Zal Yanovsky-Steve Boon marijuana bust offers readers - for a mere 25 cents - the chance to order a photocopied court transcript in which the undercover arresting officer confirms the cooperation of those two members of the Lovin' Spoonful in the heavy-handed sting operation. Unfortunately, the deal is no longer valid at this late date, but at least the article includes an excerpt that contains everything that you really need to see. The tidbits included in the "News" section are nothing short of titillating, if not always accurate:
Blackburn & Snow's first album, on Verve, will appear sometime in amused me that no one seemed to be amused at the Avalon recently when the Daily Flash played their fantastic "Bulgarian Baby"...The Baltimore Steam Packet have been signed to a seven year contract by Capitol. Why? I ask. This band is still imitating the Airplane, and not doing that very well at it either...
Anyway, you get the idea. Wait a minute...the Baltimore Steam Packet? And finally, the zine's last item is a contemporary guide to San Francisco's FM radio stations (a newfangled thing in 1967), which probably illustrates how much times have changed more than anything else you'll find in this issue.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

St. Louis 1927-1933 (Document, 1993)

The great thing about prewar blues from St. Louis is the incredible variety of styles displayed by its practitioners. Its location as the foremost Midwestern city on the Mississippi River meant that it attracted musicians from both surrounding rural areas as well Southern port cities further downstream. Document Records' St. Louis 1927-1933 offers an eminently listenable collection of sides ranging from downhome to sophisticated and all points in between.



This CD's first ten selections feature Henry Johnson and His Boys in one capacity or another. According to Paul Garon's booklet notes, this aggregation consisted of several top-notch musicians who evidently recorded under pseudonyms, including guitarist extraordinaire Lonnie Johnson and possibly his brother, James "Steady Roll" Johnson. Tracks 1 through 4 find them backing the strident vocals of the obscure Jelly Roll Anderson, with "Free Women Blues" and "Good Time Blues" showcasing the talents of an unidentified slide guitarist (a rarity for blues from St. Louis), and the more uptown-sounding "Salt Tear Blues" and "I.C. Blues" placing an emphasis on the piano and violin players. The next half-dozen titles are instrumentals credited to Henry Johnson's group. As their titles might suggest, "Blue Hawaii," "Hawaiian Harmony Blues," "Down Home Blues," and "Neck Bones and Beans" return the focus to slide guitar and a somewhat contrived, but no less enjoyable, rural sound that is occasionally betrayed by the musicians' obvious urban-style professionalism. "Ash Can Stomp" boasts an absolutely irresistible rhythm, and the elegant "Barbecue Blues" contains one of the few, if not only, celeste solos to be found in prewar blues recordings. Interestingly, at least half of these sides were alternately (?) issued as performances not by Henry Johnson and His Boys but were instead attributed to Terry & His Stomp Band or Watson's Pullman Porters. About the only thing we know about vocalist Bert "Snake Root" Hatton is that he had a great nickname. "Down in Black Bottom" shows itself to be a competent piano-accompanied number, while the addition of cornet and violin gives "Freakish Blues" (whose title uses an old black slang term for an effeminate man or mannish woman) a nice ensemble sound. The appealingly bizarre two-part "
I Wish I Had Died in Egyptland" by Jesse Johnson comes off as New Orleans-style revival camp meeting music and includes elements of "gospel, jazz, children's counting songs, echoes of The Dozens and more," as Garon explains in his essay. If "Spider" Carter's "Please Please Blues" seems to be derivative of the musical approach taken by Peetie Wheatstraw, that's because the Devil's Son-in-Law himself is probably tickling the ivories on this song. A different musician seems to be playing piano on "Dry Spell Blues" (whose subject matter might be the same drought referred to in Son House's identically-titled piece), whereas "Don't Leave Me Blues" finds the singer backed by an unknown guitarist with a style similar to that of Charley Jordan. Ell-Zee Floyd's "Snow Bound and Blue" is another decent vocal-with-piano-accompaniment blues, while Red Mike Bailey's "Back to Memphis Tenn-O-See" and "Neck Bone Blues" offer some comic relief paired with Roosevelt Sykes' redoubtable keyboard work. Per the discographical notes, "the first grooves of the Jimmy Strange sides are missing due to a rimbite," thus the somewhat truncated nature of "Quarter Splow Blues" (what the hell is a "splow"?) and "No Limit Blues," a pity since both sides feature a pretty good singer backed by the expert guitar of Clifford Gibson and violin of Clifford Hayes. The melancholy vocals of Georgia Boyd receive sympathetic accompaniment from guitarist J.D. "Jelly Jaw" Short on "Never Mind Blues" and more of the same from Sykes' piano playing on "I'm Sorry Blues."


1. Free Women Blues - Jelly Roll Anderson
2. Good Time Blues
- Jelly Roll Anderson
3. Salt Tear Blues
- Jelly Roll Anderson
4. I.C. Blues
- Jelly Roll Anderson
5. Blue Hawaii - Henry Johnson and His Boys
6. Hawaiian Harmony Blues
- Henry Johnson and His Boys
7. Down Home Special
- Henry Johnson and His Boys
8. Neck Bones and Beans
- Henry Johnson and His Boys
9. Ash Can Stomp
- Henry Johnson and His Boys
10. Barbecue Blues
- Henry Johnson and His Boys
11. Down in Black Bottom - Bert "Snake Root" Hatton
12. Freakish Rider Blues - Bert "Snake Root" Hatton
13. I Wish I Had Died in Egyptland - Pt. 1 - Jesse Johnson
14. I Wish I Had Died in Egyptland - Pt. 2 - Jesse Johnson
15. Please Please Blues - "Spider" Carter
16. Dry Spell Blues
- "Spider" Carter
17. Don't Leave Me Blues
- "Spider" Carter
18. Snow Bound and Blues - Ell-Zee Floyd
19. Back to Memphis Tenn-O-See - Red Mike Bailey
20. Neck Bone Blues - Red Mike Bailey
21. Quarter Splow Blues - Jimmy Strange
22. No Limit Blues - Jimmy Strange
23. Never Mind Blues - Georgia Boyd
24. I'm Sorry Blues - Georgia Boyd